Becoming a Prison Psychologist – Career and Schooling Guide [2024]

What is a Prison Psychologist?

If the idea of working with a criminal population excites you, a career as a prison psychologist might be for you. Prison psychologists play incredibly important roles within society. They are crucial parts of the rehabilitation of both common criminals, and the gravely criminally insane.

Prison psychologists are often charged with the task of treating murderers, violent offenders, sexual predators, and white collar criminals.

They often work in maximum security prisons, jailhouses (for assessment purposes), courthouses, and asylums geared towards the criminally insane. Prison psychologists often testify as expert witnesses inside courtrooms. Additionally, they are involved in stabilizing those found incompetent to stand trial.

Prison psychologists get to experience both the best and worst of human nature. They regularly listen to stories of untold violence, abuse, and drug addiction- and work to change these cycles within people’s lives. Prison psychologists are also often asked to weigh-in on an inmate’s progress before the prisoner is granted parole.

As a prison psychologist you will be exposed to some of the worst atrocities that human beings are capable of, all the while attempting to keep a compassionate stance for the criminals that committed these offenses.

Prison psychologists must also actively work to prevent inmates from committing additional crimes while incarcerated, and after release.

Related Reading: How to Become a Prison Counselor

What Does a Prison Psychologist Do?

Prison psychologists are often required to aid in the preparation of case files and reports. Additionally prison psychologist administer a battery of tests to incoming inmates. These tests include, but are not limited to IQ testing, thematic tests, personality tests, and many more. Prison psychologists may be required help to prepare inmates for release, and communicate directly with parole boards.

They also facilitate therapy groups for violent offenders. Prison psychologists work diligently to curb the violent impulses of inmates. Often, they work closely with prison psychiatrists to both diagnose and treat mental disorders within their prison population.

Prison psychologists are also responsible for managing suicidal inmates. As a prison psychologist you may also be responsible for the treatment of patients with schizophrenia and a variety of other psychotic disorders. Part of a prison psychologist’s job is to help seriously mentally ill inmates manage hallucinations and delusions while incarcerated.

Why Do We Need Prison Psychologists?

It’s not always clear why some people go down a path, which leads to criminal activity. Often there are several factors that may have contributed to an individual’s behavior and choices. Prison psychologists are needed to help inmates deal with obstacles and mental health issues, which may have contributed to their past behavior.

Being incarcerated is also a stressful and difficult situation for most people. Prison psychologists help inmates adjust to prison life. But prison is not just about punishment. In many instances, prison is also about rehabilitation. Most people in jail will be released back into society. Prison psychologists are needed to help inmates prepare for their integration back into the world.

Inmates are not the only ones who benefit from the work of prison psychologists. Society as a whole needs prison psychologists. By providing mental health services, psychologists can help inmates deal with issues, such as anger management, addiction or other problems, which may have contributed to their criminal activity. The goal is for an inmate to adjust to life on the outside and decrease recidivism.

What are the Education/Qualification Requirements to Become a Prison Psychologist?

Prison Psychologist Degree

The educational requirements to become a prison psychologist are similar to those of clinical psychologists. Educational requirements must be met in accordance with the laws of the state in which you wish to practice. Prison psychologists are sometimes also required to undergo fingerprinting and vigorous background checks.

Prison psychologists typically require a doctoral degree in psychology from a school accredited by the American Psychological Association. You can start your journey with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Some of the classes needed may include advanced counseling, psychology and the law, social psychology, abnormal psychology, developmental psychology, dealing with violent offenders, self-defense, as well as a battery of courses which deal exclusively with the criminal mind and sociopathy.

Work Experience Requirements

Those who want to become prison psychologists are required to successfully complete at least one (usually two) internships. You will likely finish a federal internship in which you conduct private and possibly court-appointed evaluation of inmates of questionable mental health, in order to determine if those who are accused are able to stand trial. You will be required to work closely with the prison population, while maintaining strict boundaries in accordance with prison policies.

What Skills and Qualities are Required for a Prison Psychologist?

A job as a prison psychologist is perhaps the most demanding of all positions within clinical psychology. You must possess a strong work ethic, an ability to cope with high stress environments, compassion, a clear sense of boundaries, and a belief that humans can and do change.

In addition to this skill set, prison psychologists need strong administrative abilities, good communication skills, and emotional resilience. Prison psychologists must also be able to quickly adapt to changes within the environment for safety reasons.

What is the Salary of a Prison Psychologist?

Simply Hired notes that the average salary for a prison psychologist, as of February 2024, is $105,833 per year. This is only slightly lower than the national average for counseling therapists.

What Careers are Similar to Prison Psychology?

Although prison psychologist work with a very specific patient population, there are also careers that are similar including the following:

Forensic Psychologist: Forensic psychologists are experts in applying psychological theories to settings, such as correctional facilities and courtrooms. For instance, forensic psychologists assist attorneys with jury selection.

In a correctional facility, forensic psychologists may work with inmates to deal with anger, mental health issues and substance abuse. Most states require forensic psychologists to be licensed, which requires a doctorate in psychology.

Correctional Counselor: Similar to a prison psychologists, correctional counselor also work with inmates, but their role is a bit different. Correctional counselors work with inmates to develop a plan for when they are released from prison. They help inmates identify obstacles they may face and develop strategies to succeed after their release.

For example, correctional counselors may provide information on support groups for inmates recovering from substance abuse or information on job assistance programs. A bachelor’s degree in counseling is the minimum requirement to work as a correctional counselor, but a master’s degree in counseling is often preferred.

Counseling Psychologist: Counseling psychologists specialize in facilitating interpersonal and personal function through the lifespan.

Counseling psychologists may work with people in various settings, such as mental health facilities, prisons, schools and hospitals. They treat people of all ages and use various counseling strategies to help people resolve crises, improve their well-being and alleviate stress so they can function better.

Counseling psychologists may help individuals who are incarcerated come to terms with issues they may have and develop better coping skills. By developing better ways to deal with problems, such as anger or impulsivity, inmates may decrease their chance of criminal activity. In order to work as a counseling psychologist, a doctorate degree is usually needed.

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